A Kook with No Regrets
by David Dennis
I jumped off the mossy rocks into the whitewash and paddled toward the lineup. My wife and kids
were warm in their beds, and my drive to Silicon Valley was still a couple of hours off. A few locals
traded waves at the Slot while a lone longboarder bobbed at Middle Peak vigilantly facing the
brightening horizon and waiting for the first solid set of daylight. An offshore breeze sprayed kelpy mist
off the back of a small breaker as I paddled over it. The air seemed richer, somehow cleaner than what
settled over the cliffs I had just left behind. Exhaling slowly, I popped my board under me and took my
place past the breaks. I recognized the longboarder and nodded. His beard was sun-bleached grey and
his sky blue eyes danced with youthful passion. He nodded back at me. I belonged. Finally.
A sliver of sun peaked over Moss Landing throwing a sparkle on the water to compete with the still
twinkling lights of the aging Santa Cruz wharf. I gazed over the whole of the Monterey Bay as if it were
my own. A greying sea lion stared at me from a few feet away, his black pearl eyes set large in a head
that was mostly obscured by a mat of kelp. Three dolphins jumped beyond the break, their sleek skin
reflecting the colors of the ocean surface as the sun revealed itself…orange, then purple, then deep
blue. I watched them play until the lump of a set wave hid them from view.
The old longboarder pointed at me, silently giving up the wave as he moved into position for the next. I
paddled hard to make the drop, worried that I might miss it and waste his gift. I popped up just as the
sea lion submerged through the glassy face. Dropping in fast and late on the chest-high roller I made
quick turns from Middle Peak through to Indicators, shifting my weight forward on my 6’ 6” Arrow to
squeeze a few more seconds of ride as the wave slowed then crumbled to mush. I cut back and dove in
over the whitewash letting the salt water fill my sinuses. I was giddy paddling back out. The old man
was on the next wave, walking the length of his board with smooth, even cross-steps and beaming with
stoke. His long beard was split in the breeze.
As I waited alone for the next set, my usual regrets bubbled up. For most of my 44 years, I have lived
near solid surf, the majority in and around Santa Cruz. But even when life took me elsewhere, I was
only a bike ride or road trip from killer breaks. College in San Diego, a year teaching English in Costa
Rica, even while working in landlocked Madrid and gloomy Seattle, great breaks beckoned just a few
hours away. Good fortune has also afforded me personal and professional travels to legendary surfing
destinations: Madagascar, Australia, Chile, Peru, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Hawaii, the Canary Islands,
Morocco. Any surfer lucky enough to hit these storied destinations will recount tales of leg-burning
sessions and epic barrels. My surf stories all begin with the same tired line: “If only I had started surfing
before I was 40.”
As the stoked old longboarder and I sat silently in the lineup that sunny Fall morning at the Lane, I
imagined what my life might have become had I started surfing in my youth. Ditching high school
classes in favor of sessions at the Hook would have been routine. Had I actually earned a diploma, I
know that tucking deep into the shacks at Blacks Beach would have won out more often than not over
classes at San Diego State. If, by chance, I would have graduated from college, I imagine I might have
spent months, perhaps years, living out of a VW Bus and surfing the coastlines of Latin America. Had I
survived bandits, bouts of malaria, and certain melanoma, I wonder whether I would have chosen to
get married. Even a blissful marriage has a way of stealing precious hours in the water. Kids? Perhaps.
But, missing dawn patrol after long nights of broken sleep and diaper duty might have filled me with resentment. You can be sure that I would not have accepted my company’s generous job offer to
relocate to Madrid, a city with barely a river bank let alone a coastline. And, while the possibility still
remains, I imagine I might be on a path to becoming that grey-bearded guy at your local break who
sleeps in a rusty van wedged between a sandy hound dog and a water-logged noserider.
So, maybe not having learned to surf when I was younger actually afforded me time to get a good
education, build a relationship with an amazing woman, carve out a successful career, raise two
wonderful kids, travel the world and, finally, to plant roots in Santa Cruz. And so, that morning, as the
next set rolled in from the Northwest, my regrets began to submerge and I focused instead on where
It was here in Santa Cruz a few years ago that my wife, kids and I took a surf lesson with Ed Guzman,
owner of the Club Ed Surf School. Linda and Amaya had fun, but didn’t catch the bug, opting instead
for paddleboarding on warm, flat days. My son Jacob’s contagion grew slowly, but he still prefers
ripping on four wheels in a cement bowl over cutbacks on a wave. For me, though, catching that first
wave was all it took. Within a few weeks I was shuffling work meetings around tide schedules and
“working from home” when the swell forecast dictated. I weaseled out of elementary school carpool
duty to make dawn sessions. And, I often pretended to take notes in meetings while I was, in fact,
switching between surf cams of local breaks. I quickly developed a voracious appetite for surf
magazines, videos and books, and found kinship from afar with Peter Heller, the author of Kook, an
autobiographical tale of a 40 year-old who picks up surfing and aspires to surf a barrel at Puerto
Escondido within 12 months. That book and the fact that my belly formed three large rolls of neoprene
in a wetsuit motivated me to change my diet and drop 50 pounds.
Still, I cringe when I think of the times I wore the kook badge on my own sleeve like a neon decal. The
teenage girl working at the surf shop had to install my fins and show me how to attach a leash when I
bought my first longboard. With a few weeks, I had shelled out $60 to have a tiny scuff ding repaired
that I would now fix in seconds with a drop of Sun Cure. For a few months, I wore webbed gloves
thinking they gave me a paddling edge. I was too star-stuck to strike up a conversation with Rob
Machado when I saw him eating a salad at New Leaf Market while waiting for the screening of his film,
The Drifter, at the Del Mar Theater. And, I spent more than $50 to make a dozen bars of homemade
surf wax that not only slicked up my board, but made a huge mess in the kitchen. If you ever accept a
dinner invitation to our house, you’ll smell melting wax drifting up from deep in the crevices of our
stove, and see my wife still shaking her head.
Lucky for me, the days of hardcore localism at most breaks are behind us, and I made it through my
early days without keyed car doors, waxed windshields or black eyes. More often than not I was
encouraged and given tips by kind, anonymous folks in the lineup. Thank you to the woman who told
me to move up on my board when paddling for smaller waves and to the guy who suggested I look
down the line instead of staring at the tip of my board. Yes, I had a few run-ins with local pricks, but
each was helpful in its own way. At Manresa, not long after my lesson, I paddled out on a head high
day. I hadn’t yet learned the art of “turtling” and bailed off my shiny new longboard when a big set
roped in. If the dude who got hit by my board is reading this, I’m sorry. Thanks for simply shouting and
pointing me toward the sand instead of punching me in the face or worse. Doing the paddle of shame
back to the beach was painful enough that morning. Some of my most egregious screw-ups were
considerably more dangerous though, like the time I nearly took out the eye of a local kid, popping him
in the face with my longboard as I was dropping in at Indicators. Sure he was in the way, but with more
control I could have avoided him. His trip to urgent care was a low point of my early days in the water.
My inexperience even put my own son at risk. One morning at Sharks, in my excitement to surf with
him, I assessed that the waves were small after watching no more than 3 or 4 roll in. Jacob was
nervous, but I reassured him that it was only waist high. I hadn’t yet internalized that clean up sets can
be two to three times larger than the norm. After a few minutes in the water, a set of five, well
overhead waves powered through. Jacob, who was 11 at the time, got pounded hard and started to
panic. I struggled to help him to the relative safety of the slippery, moss-covered rocks. It was high tide
and there wasn’t a strip of sand to be found. We had a difficult and dangerous walk on the boulders to
the stairs at Privates. He never cried, never complained and never dropped his board. I was as proud of
him as I’ve ever been even as I was ashamed of my own stupidity. The incident gave him a healthy
respect for the ocean, but it was a long time before he was willing to paddle out with me again.
My progression from blatant kook has been gradual. Each time I paddle out, every interaction I have at
a surf shop and each new friend I make in the lineup helps me shed a little more of that beginner
brand. I can pinpoint specific moments when I knew the progress was real, though. I had one just the
other day at my local shop.
Me: Hi, I need some wax.
Surf Shop Guy: Purple?
I walked out of the shop grinning, three cakes of Sex Wax cold water formula in hand. In my early
months, the conversation might have been:
Me: Hi, I need some surfing wax?
Surf Shop Guy: Purple?
Me: Ummm. Got any red? That’ll match my board.
The new tattoo sleeve on my right arm of a Northern California kelp forest and octopus reminds me of
the water when I’m in meetings or stuck in front of a computer. The Volkswagen Eurovan I bought on
eBay gives me a place of solace to change and relax after a session. Paddling out on a ten foot day on
my short board makes me feel electric…even if I only catch a wave or two. And, I’ve convinced more
than a few computer jockeys from the tech company where I work to try surfing the ocean instead of
the web. The personal bonds those sessions formed have improved my work life immensely. A single
session can take the edge off a stress-filled work life and help us learn to rely on each other.
After my session at the Lane that Fall morning, I drove in to work ready to attack the day’s challenges.
But, by one o’clock the back-to-back-to-back meetings ceased to need my attention, so I “took notes”
on my laptop. The forecast for the rest of the day was for smaller waves, but I could see on the cam
that the Lane was still breaking clean under a sunny sky. So, I faked a few coughs, ducked under the
light of a projector beaming yet another PowerPoint presentation and headed for the stairs.
Home by 2:30, my kids were still at school and my wife was running errands before picking them up
and shuttling them off to soccer practice. I let our dog, Barroway, out into the front yard and grabbed
my longboard from the rafters of our garage. The gloss coat had long since dulled, and my hastily
dripped Sun Cure repairs were peeling from the faded red rails. Hairline cracks spider-webbed across
the board’s dark yellow bottom which had long since betrayed its water-tight glory. The foam core
had dried out after hanging for a few months from the ceiling, and chunks of brittle wax flaked off easily to
the touch. I set the board down in the driveway under the afternoon sun and went back into the
garage to root around in my drawer of surf paraphernalia until I found a scraper stuck to the bottom of
an unused bar of homemade wax. The board had warmed under the afternoon sun, and I used the
scraper to remove all but the base coat from the beaten surface. I tore open a bar of purple wax,
breathing in the coconutty root beer scent. I let it linger. The smell was like Pavolvian incense triggering
a rush of adrenaline. I rubbed the bar from tip to tail then slid the board onto the bed of my Eurovan.
Barroway jumped onto my lap, and I sped the few miles down the mountain from my house toward
the beach. I wound my way past frustrating stop lights on Mission, shopping cart vagabonds on Bay
Avenue and afternoon jogger zealots on West Cliff. I pulled in to the mostly empty lot at the Lane,
suited up quickly and bounded down the rocks. I knew each step by heart, certain of exactly where to
place my foot and still make it down the pointed boulders with a dingless board. I jumped back into the
whitewash, and paddled around a few waves. Scratching out three strong strokes, I dropped in on the
last wave of a set. I surfed wave after glassy wave until the sun began to set behind the lighthouse, and
I hiked back up the rocks. I peeled off my wetsuit, pulled on shorts and a t-shirt and walked barefoot
with Barroway down to Its beach. The dolphins were still trolling just past the waves, and Sea Lion Rock
was a riot of barks and shows of dominance. We played fetch with a piece of driftwood until the red
sky turned to near darkness. Back at the camper, Barroway yawned then fell asleep on the floor. I
caught his yawn, checked my watch and knew that I had another hour before Linda and the kids would
be home. I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. My beard was a couple of days long, and I
noticed for the first time that it was flecked with tiny gray hairs like grains of white sand. I sighed then
smiled as I pushed the longboard on its edge on the bed of the camper and laid down for a rest.
Barroway jumped up next to me, and I dozed into a warm sleep wedged between my sandy dog and
my waterlogged longboard. No regrets